Monday, April 17, 2006

Changing Organizational Culture

Educators usually bristle when someone equates a school to a business. You've probably heard the analogy before: start with raw materials (students), add resources (teachers, curriculum, textbooks), and end up with finished "products," ready to proceed to university or the working world. It's a pretty primative way of looking at things -- after all, raise your hand if you think of your child as raw material!

No hands? That must be because we all understand that education is far more complicated than selling, say, building materials. But does that mean that schools can't learn anything from the business world? Not at all....

Take the April issue of the Harvard Business Review, for example. Ram Charan gives an excellent account of how US-retailer Home Depot underwent a full-blown corporate culture change in roughly two years. Home Depot (revenues of around $80 billion in 2005) provides an interesting example of not why to change, but how to change -- and that makes it relevant for schools to consider.

Now if you're saying, "JIS doesn't need a culture change," read no further. The rest of this posting will only make you mad, and you don't need that frustration. But if you've found yourself wondering whether JIS' current culture is hindering it from reaching its full potential as an amazing learning community for your on.

Organizations can have many different types of culture, from "command and control" to "entrepreneurial" to the blood-thirsty "every man for himself." Each has benefits and drawbacks (although I'm hard-pressed to recall the benefits of the cut-throat culture at my first job in public relations! I still have scars.). And organizational culture can be experienced differently depending on where you are in the organization. In other words, the top-dog can see the culture much differently than someone lower in the organization's food chain. Culture is about setting organizational goals and then creating the best climate to reach those goals.

Once an organization's leaders have set their sites on revamping its culture, Home Depot's CEO Robert Nardelli offers up several tools to make the process happen:
  • Data templates (information-gathering tools that consolidate data on issues the organization deems critical) to "give employees a deeper understanding of business performance, and foster collaboration by putting people on the same page when making decisions."
  • "Disciplined talent reviews, conducted frequently,...which emphasize the need for candor and fairness in dealing with employee performance."
  • Employee task forces, "staffed by individuals from all levels of the [organization], to elicit unfiltered input from the people closest to a problem and gain their support for the changes the solution requires."
  • "An array of leadership development programs,...which raise the bar for performance and ensure continuity of the culture."
These tools are just as relevant to schools as they are to multi-million-dollar companies, because they get at the heart of building a climate of trust, mutually shared goals, and collaboration.

The great thing about addressing organizational culture is that it's a two-for-one deal. You get an improved culture, but you also get a better end product. For Home Depot, these changes meant "that people were interacting with one another and making critical decisions in significantly different ways....With these cultural changes embedded in the organization, improved business results were sure to follow." For JIS, we're talking about ending up with a school that serves all its students and families with the best possible education product imaginable.

As Thomas A. Steward, editor of the HBR points out,
For change to be deep and lasting, the interactions between people -- at all levels -- need to focus on the right outcomes and consistently produce the right conversations and decisions. Neither leadership, nor tools, nor incentives are sufficient to get you there. You must find a way to manage culture directly.
Powerful stuff. But where to go from here? More on that tomorrow.


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